Geoffrey Kirk delves into some of the recent books on the Crusades and muses on the clash between West and East

You will have noticed that the Crusades are in fashion. The booksellers’ tables groan with glossy summaries intended to satisfy the appetites of those who have suddenly grasped that the events of the twelfth century may yet have some relevance for our own. They are not wrong; but I suspect they are for the most part misguided.

Nearly a thousand years has passed since July 15, 1099 when the Latin army entered Jerusalem. It is both foolish and dangerous to seek neat parallels, or to judge and condemn past generations by the standards and principles of the present age. Muslims, as Amin Maalouf has pointed out (The Crusades through Arab Eyes, Saqi 2004), feeling themselves oppressed by the modern West, appeal all too easily to a crusading mythology. The Turk, Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to shoot the pope on May 13, 1981, had expressed himself earlier in a letter to a friend: ‘I have decided to kill John Paul II, supreme commander of the Crusades.’ But history has the habit of being far more complex than contemporary sloganising will ever allow.

The paradox of the Crusades is that they would not be important if they had not failed. Here is one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of history: what if the Crusader States had settled down as part of the rich diversity of Middle Eastern culture? What if the counties of Antioch and Edessa had deftly played one Seljuk emir off against another, so arresting the Turkish rise to hegemony? What if Frankish Jerusalem had built up diplomatic relations with the Egyptian caliphate, as Alexius Comnenus had done, and expertly exploited divisions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Abbasids and Fatimids? Then, surely, everything would have been different.

But for perfectly explicable, logistical and demographic reasons we can now see that those Crusader States were unsustainable and that the attempt to sustain them fatally weakened the Christian Empire of the East. The Crusaders had neither the ability nor to inclination to ‘bed-in’ or go native. Without the vision to create a brilliant and successful fusion-culture, such as that of Roger II in Norman Sicily, they continued as a tiny embattled minority.

Their architecture, both secular and religious, tells the whole tle: the aggressive aloofness of Krak des Chevaliers and the eloquently Burgundian simplicity of St Anne’s in Jerusalem. It was inevitable that the experiment would run out of time. But not before it had made its own contribution to the increasing coherence and self-awareness of Islam.

The Arabs had begun their remarkable saga of conquest in 633, in the reign of the Basileus Heraclius. In three years they had taken Damascus, after five Jerusalem, after six Syria. Within a decade they had overwhelmed Egypt and Armenia; within twenty years they had destroyed the Persian Empire, taken Afghanistan, seized most of the Punjab and spread along the North African littoral. In 711 they invaded Spain; by 732 they were on the banks of the Loire.

These were, in short, a people who could hardly adopt the moral high ground when soldiers from across a continent invaded what they had come to see as their home territory. Or be surprised at the audacity of those who did so. And yet they were. The moral indignation of the Arab chroniclers cited by Maalouf is obviously genuine and heartfelt. Why? Why did the invasion from the West give greater offence than rebellions of subject peoples closer at hand?

The answer seems to lie in the extent to which these mighty conquerors allowed themselves to be defined in relation to the Christian culture of their crusader enemies. The Lords of half the world let the religion and mores of a few occidental settlers disturb their equilibrium and determine their self-awareness. To a remarkable extent their progeny still do.

The early Muslims were famously tolerant of the religions and cultures of those whom they conquered, and especially of Christians and Jews, the Peoples of the Book. With the Byzantine Christians they had an uneasy relationship which alternated between war and diplomacy. But these Occidental Christians were what we now call ‘fundamentalists’; their intolerance of ideological deviance extended even to their Eastern Christian subjects.

The Orthodox, and Jacobite Oriental clergy hated their Western rulers so much that they actively conspired with Saladin for the fall of the city and the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1187. Muslims, it seems, learned intransigence from the Crusaders, and what could have been a meeting of minds – – degenerated into the most protracted slanging match in history.

With September 11, 2001 in mind (and surely that event was the occasion of most of the current literature about the Crusades), Western commentators are seeking, in history, the roots of Islamic fundamentalism. In that there is a double irony.

In the first place Muslims learned intolerance from the Western Christians who invaded them and brought to the nuanced world of Middle Eastern realpolitik a new dogmatic intransigence. In the second place, now that Western Christians, for the most part, have gained in subtlety (and when the Pope whose life was threatened has forgiven his assailant and apologised for the crusading past), the Islamic world still has to deal with the ugly combination of red-neck Christianity and Enlightenment cockiness which is the predominant religion of North America. But then, so do we all.

Perhaps the truth that both sides have to learn in this antagonism between East and West is that the relationship, properly understood, is one of symbiosis, not of belligerency. In our present anxiety, two things seem to be being forgotten.

The first is that the Enlightenment culture of the modern West is the enemy equally of both religions, indeed of religion itself. It is a harsh ideology which, as Pope Benedict has said, offers the world a tragic parody of human freedom. If we are not careful, Muslims and Christians will find themselves shackled together in the cabinet of ethnological curiosities of the post-religious West.

The second is that the future may well belong to a culture which has never been significantly affected by either Christianity or Islam, and which does not know the rules of our perennial family squabble. A world dominated by the Chinese will be a very different place.